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NBA playoffs: Thunder look to keep 'non-streak' going against Mavericks in Game 4.

NBA playoffs: The Oklahoma City Thunder haven't lost back-to-back games in the NBA playoffs this season. They host the Dallas Mavericks in the fourth game of their best-of-seven Western Conference final this evening at 9 p.m. Eastern time on ESPN.

By Christopher HartmanContributor / May 23, 2011

From left, Oklahoma City Thunder players Nate Robinson, Kevin Durant, and Kendrick Perkins react on the bench during the first half against the Dallas Mavericks in Game 3 of the NBA playoffs Western Conference final, Saturday, May 21, in Oklahoma City.

Eric Gay/AP

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Oklahoma City hasn’t lost two consecutive post-season games this year. Looking to maintain this precedent, the Thunder look to win on their home floor tonight against the Dallas Mavericks and quiet the critics who say they don’t have it in the tank to outlast Dallas’s veteran squad.

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Game 4 is pivotal and will, by all accounts, determine whether Oklahoma City gives itself new life, or drops to an almost insurmountable 3-1 deficit – with the next game on Dallas’ home court.

After Game 1, it looked as if Dallas had already figured out the Thunder on both sides of the ball. The Mavs’ defense confused the Thunder starters and kept the bench to only 22 points.

But in Game 2, the Thunder bench, led by guard James Harden, resuscitated itself and got the Thunder back to all-square on Dallas’s home floor. Then, in Game 3, Dallas narrowly managed to avoid blowing a 23-point lead, similar to the one they had before losing a close game to Portland in the first round.

Looking at Dallas’s checkered history in the playoffs since their last conference championship in 2006, a previous version of the Mavs might have lost that third game. But, as they have shown repeatedly this post-season, they have both managed to come back from deficits and hold leads better than in years past.

However, after three games, the factor that has figured most prominently in the teams’ victories has been their benches. Over the past week, the bench that has stepped up has gotten its team the victory.

In Game 1, the Mavericks' bench outscored Oklahoma City by 31 points; in Game 2, the Thunder won it, 50-29; and in even considering the relatively low scoring in Saturday’s game, Dallas’s bench had 28 to Oklahoma City’s 16 points.

The key here for the Thunder remains the production of their trio of second-tier guards James Harden, Eric Maynor, and Daequan Cook, as well as reserve big man Nick Collison. If they show up in tonight’s game in any significant way, and Kevin Durant can finally get some threes to fall – he was 0-8 in Game 3 and is currently riding a 0-16 drought, while the team as a whole in the third game was 1-17 from beyond the arc – the Thunder give themselves a solid opportunity to win. In fact, at the end of the first half in Game 3, they’d only scored 36 points on 10-for-34 shooting from the floor (a season-low 29.4 percent). If they shoot this poorly tonight, there is no question they will lose.

For Dallas, a performance from Dirk Nowitzki rivaling his stellar Game 1 would be most welcome – as his point totals have declined markedly: from 48 in Game 1 to 29 points in the second, to 18 points this past Saturday.

Additionally, Dallas guards Jason Terry and Jason Kidd returning their earlier form on both sides of the ball would be very helpful – particularly when considering that since Game 1, Thunder guard Russell Westbrook has been completing a greater percentage of his field goals and has gotten to the free-throw line a total of 36 times during the series (30-36).

And the Mavs’ reserve guard J.J. Barea, since his stellar 21-point effort in Game 1, has trailed off as well, having scored 11 in Game 2 and only 4 in Game 3. Dallas needs to return to the aggressive pick-and-roll they executed so well in game 1 and get Barea inside, where he has proven he can effectively out-maneuver the Thunder’s big men. Additionally, Nowitzki must mix up his offensive attack as in Game 1, and try and draw Oklahoma City into foul trouble. His 24-24 free throw performance in Game 1 was instrumental in the Mavericks’ win. But in Games 2 and 3, he only got to the line a total of 13 times (making 12).

Oklahoma City snapped Dallas’ seven-game home winning streak last Thursday, and now, in looking to avoid their first back-to-back losses of the playoffs, will try to prevent the Mavericks from preserving their own streak in seeking to win their fifth consecutive road game.

For a young team, the Thunder have demonstrated a formidable ability to win in the clutch (having successfully endured four overtime periods these playoffs); but truthfully, they need Dallas to collapse tonight to come out on top - which likely won’t happen.

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